In the United Kingdom, it was a title of respect accorded to men of higher social rank, but later came to be used as a general courtesy title for any man in a formal context, usually appended to the name as in "John Smith, Esq.", with no precise significance. Esquire is cognate with the word squire, which originally meant an apprentice or assistant to a knight. The title "Esquire" has been used continuously since it was created in the late 14th century, and many uses continue today.
- the eldest sons of knights and their eldest sons in perpetuity,
- the eldest sons of younger sons of peers and their eldest sons in perpetuity,
- esquires so created by the king,
- esquires by office, such as justices of the peace and those holding an office of trust under the crown.
...a gentleman born, master parson; who writes himself "Armigero," in any bill, warrant, quittance, or obligation, "Armigero."
To which Shallow directly replies:
Ay, that I do; and have done any time these three hundred years.
Nineteenth century tables of precedence further distinguished between "esquires by birth" and "esquires by office" (and likewise for "gentleman"). Today the term "gentleman" is still found in official tables of precedence, and it invariably means a person who is an armiger with no higher rank or a descendant of someone who has borne arms. An English use of the term is to distinguish between men of the upper and lower gentry, who are "esquires" and "gentlemen" respectively, which still applies in terms of the official Order of Precedence. Examples of this may be found in the Parish Tithe Map Schedules made under the Tithe Commutation Act 1836. Later examples appear in the list of subscribers to The History of Elton, by the Rev. Rose Fuller Whistler, published in 1892, which distinguishes between subscribers designated Mr (another way of indicating gentlemen) and those allowed Esquire.
- The eldest sons of knights, and their eldest sons in perpetual succession
- The eldest sons of younger sons of peers, and their eldest sons in perpetual succession (children of peers already had higher precedence)
- Esquires created by letters patent or other investiture, and their eldest sons
- Esquires by virtue of their offices, as Justices of the Peace and others who bear any office of trust under the Crown
- Esquires of knights constituted at their investiture
- Foreign noblemen
- Persons who are so styled under the Royal sign manual (officers of the Armed Forces of or above the rank of Captain in the Army or its equivalent) and eldest sons thereof.
- Barristers (but not Solicitors)
A slightly later source defines the term as
Esquire – A rank next below that of Knight. Besides those Esquires who are personal attendants of Knights of Orders of Knighthood, this title is held by all attendants on the person of the Sovereign, and all persons holding the Sovereign's commission being of military rank not below Captain; also, by general concession, by Barristers at Law, Masters of Arts and Bachelors of Law and Physic.
But formal definitions like these were proposed because there was, in reality, no fixed criterion distinguishing those designated esquire: it was essentially a matter of impression as to whether a person qualified for this status. William Segar, Garter King of Arms (the senior officer of arms at the College of Arms), wrote in 1602: "And who so can make proofe, that his Ancestors or himselfe, have had Armes, or can procure them by purchase, may be called Armiger or Esquier." Honor military, and civill (1602; lib. 4, cap. 15, p. 228). (By Armes he referred to a coat of arms; it is not clear from this quotation whether Segar made a distinction between esquires and gentlemen.) For example, Lords of the Manor held the rank of esquire by prescription.
Although esquire is the English translation of the French écuyer, the latter indicated legal membership in the nobilities of ancien régime France and contemporaneous Belgium, whereas an esquire belongs to the British gentry rather than to its nobility, albeit that the term "gentry" in England came to be used to describe what is elsewhere labelled the untitled nobility. Écuyer in French (11th to 14th century) means "shield-bearer", a knight in training, age 14 to 21. In the later stages of the Middle Ages, the cost of the adoubement or accolade became too high for many noblemen to bear. They stayed écuyers all their lives, making that title synonymous with "nobleman" or "gentleman".
Modern British usage
The most common occurrence of term "esquire" today is in the addition of the suffix "Esq." in order to pay an informal compliment to a male recipient by way of implying gentle birth. There remain respected protocols for identifying those to whom it is thought most proper that the suffix should be given, especially in very formal or in official circumstances.
The breadth of Esquire (as Esq.) had become universal in the United Kingdom by the mid 20th century, with no distinction in status being perceived between Mr and Esquire. Esquire was used generally as the default title for all men who did not have a grander title when addressing correspondence, with letters addressed using the name in initial format (e.g., K.S. Smith, Esq.) but Mr being used as the form of address (e.g. Dear Mr Smith). In the 1970s, the use of Esq. started to decline, and by the end of the 20th century most people had stopped using it and changed to using Mr instead. Esq. is generally considered to be old-fashioned but is still used by some individuals and organisations that wish to give the impression of being 'traditional' such as Christie's and Berry Bros. & Rudd. British men invited to Buckingham Palace receive their invitations in an envelope with the suffix Esq. after their names, while men of foreign nationalities instead have the prefix Mr (women are addressed as Miss, Ms, or Mrs). The same practice applies for other post from the palace (e.g., to employees).
Esquire is historically a feudal designation in Scotland. Today, the title of esquire is defined as a social dignity that refers to people of the Scottish gentry, who hold the next position in the Order of Precedence above Gentlemen. It is also used as a common courtesy in correspondence. Traditionally, this was one who was classified as a 'cadet for knighthood'. Today, the title of esquire is not bestowed on gentlemen, although certain positions carry with them the degree of esquire, such as that of advocate or Justice of the Peace. Whether an armiger is a gentleman, an esquire or of a higher rank can be told by the type of helm depicted on the Letters Patent granting or matriculating the arms. In Scots Heraldry, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney makes clear that a gentleman's helm is a closed pot helm, in plain steel, with no gold, whereas an esquire's helm can be a steel pot helm garnished in gold or a helmet with a closed visor garnished in gold. The Court of the Lord Lyon will display the helm appropriate to their "degree", or social rank, in the illustration on the Letters Patent.
The definition of Esquire today includes:
- 1. The male primogeniture descendant of a knight (with or without Scottish Arms),
- 2. Scottish Armigers recognised with a Territorial Designation within their Letters Patent, frequently described as a Laird, which is taken to infer the rank of Esquire. Lairds with a territorial designation recognised by the Court of the Lord Lyon would not use the post nominal letters of "Esq." after their name, as the use of the territorial designation infers the rank of esquire.
- 3. Male Scottish Clan Chiefs recognized by the Court of the Lord Lyon (with Scottish Arms) who are not feudal barons, or a Peer.
- 4. Those other Armigers recognised in the degree of Esquire via the helm indicated in their Letters Patent as per the guidance mentioned above.
There is some confusion over the fact that the Lord Lyon King of Arms addresses correspondents by their name followed by "Esq." in correspondence, namely on letters. Some people erroneously believe that this makes them an Esquire, however this is a common courtesy in Scotland, as in the rest of Britain, and does not constitute official recognition in the degree of an Esquire. The Scottish courts have confirmed that the base degree in which an Armiger is recognised is the dignity of Gentleman, not Esquire.
In feudal times an Esquire was an Armour-Bearer, attendant upon a Knight, but bearing his own unique armorial device. Similarly, an Armiger in contemporary terms is well-defined within the jurisdiction of Scotland as someone who is an Armour-Bearer. These two senses of "Armour-Bearer" are different: An Esquire in feudal times was an "Armour-Bearer" in the sense of being the person who carried their knight's armour for them; whereas in the contemporary sense the term "Armour-Bearer" is being used to mean the bearer of a Coat of Arms, an Armiger. The two are not the same thing, although the feudal Esquire would also most likely have been an Armiger. For centuries the title of Esquire has not been bestowed on a Knight's Attendee (since knights no longer need to train for battle). Attendants on Knights, however, were not the only bearers of arms, and similarly not all Armigers were Esquires. Today, being an Armiger is synonymous with the title of Gentleman within the Order of Precedence in Scotland, and is a social dignity. The Letters Patent of Scottish Armigers will never include the title of Gentleman, because the Letters Patent themselves evidence the individual is an Armour-Bearer, or Gentleman by the strictest sense of the definition. A Scottish Armiger is a Gentleman or Gentlewoman unless they hold a higher rank.
Scottish Armigers are those individuals with a hereditary right, grant or matriculation of Arms so entitling them to use personal Arms by the Court of the Lord Lyon (Ref. Scottish Heraldry). The bearing of duly registered Arms is an indication of nobility (either peerage or non-peerage in rank). All Scottish Armigers are recognised as members of the nobility in the broader sense through their grant or matriculation of Arms awarded by the Crown or Sovereign through the Court of the Lord Lyon, and by issuance of a Warrant from the Lord Lyon King of Arms is so entered in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland and through later official "Ensigns of Nobility". Without such legal Arms it is practically impossible to prove one's nobiliary status. "Technically, a grant of arms from the Lord Lyon is a patent of nobility (also referred to a 'Diploma of Nobility'); the Grantee is thereby 'enrolled with all nobles in the noblesse of Scotland.', however the term "nobility" today is little used in this context, as in common parlance in Britain the term is widely associated with the Peerage. Instead the French term of Noblesse has been used by the Court of the Lord Lyon as this term not only includes Peers but also the non-Peerage minor-nobility, which includes Baronets, Knights, feudal Barons, Armigers with Territorial Designations, Esquires, and Gentlemen.
The title Esquire is not allocated by the law of any state to any profession, class, or station in society. Because it is commonly employed by lawyers, however, use by an unlicensed person may be evidence of the unauthorized practice of law, which can subject a person to sanctions by a state bar association and is a crime in all fifty states. The concern is that by appending "Esq." to his or her name, a person may create a false perception of acting in the capacity of a lawyer, which might induce a layman to consider the person to be an attorney and to create an attorney-client relationship.
Similarly, when addressing social correspondence to a commissioned officer of the United States Foreign Service, Esquire may be used as a complimentary title. While the abbreviated Esq. is correct, Esquire is typically written in full when addressing a diplomat. If any other titles are used on the same line, Esquire is omitted.
Use in addressing young men
In extra-legal settings today the use of "Esquire" or its abbreviation "Esq." is occasionally seen as a gently jocular appendage to a very young male addressee's name. It is also used in formal address to or by young male children too young to be addressed as "Mister" or "Mr." to emphasize the intention to regard the child as, or the child's obligation or intention to behave as would, a gentleman.
Use of honorifics and post-nominals
Honorifics are not used with courtesy titles, so John Smith, Esq. or Mr John Smith would be correct, but Mr John Smith, Esq. would be incorrect.
When addressing a person who has an academic degree or other post-nominal professional designation, such as a Certified Public Accountant, a writer should use either the post-nominal designation (usually abbreviated) or the Esq., but not both; as Esquire is a courtesy title, it should not be used with post-nominals.
Before 1947, the term Esquire was used by most senior government officers, especially the former members of the Indian Civil Service and the rest of the higher services of the Imperial Civil Services. The term was used by members of the anglicised segments of the Indian society who could join the government services. It was mostly used by government officials who could claim to have received their legal education in England, especially in either Oxford or Cambridge University, and had become barristers in London.
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